Great Beginnings for Vintage Computing in Seattle; VCF PNW

The pitch to my wife was simple: “Feel like spending the weekend in Seattle?” That’s how I ended up at the inaugural Vintage Computer Festival Pacific Northwest last weekend, and I’m glad we made the five-hour drive into The Big City to check it out. Hackaday is a VCF sponsor, after all, so it seemed like a great excuse to make the trip. That it ended up being two consecutive days of great Seattle weather was only icing on the cake of being able to spend time with fellow retro computer aficionados and their dearest bits of old hardware, in a great museum dedicated to keeping computer history alive and accessible.

The fact that Seattle, home of Microsoft, Amazon, and dozens of other tech companies, has until now been left out of the loop in favor of VCF East in New Jersey and VCF West in Mountain View seems strange, but judging by the reception, VCF PNW is here to stay and poised to grow. There were 20 exhibitors for this go around, showing off everything from reanimated PDP-11 and Altair 8800 control panels to TRS-80s from Model 1 through to the CoCo. Almost every class of reasonably transportable retro hardware was represented, as well as some that pushed the portability envelope, like a working PDP-8 and a huge Symbolics 3640 LISP workstation.

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Resurrecting An Amiga CD32

As an editor on Amiga magazines in a previous life, this is kind of bittersweet. [RetroManCave] was donated an Amiga CD32 games system, and it is trying to resurrect it. If you’ve not heard of it, the CD32 was a 1993 games console based on the Amiga home computer system. It was the last gasp for Commodore, the beleaguered company behind the Amiga. In this first video of a series, they take the system apart, take you through what’s inside and boot it up. The system boots, but there is some sort of problem with the video sync, and they will be taking a closer look at fixing that next. We have featured a couple of similar projects from [RetroManCave] before, such as their brain transplant on a Big Trak toy and Commodore 64 fix. This video (after the break) is worth a watch if you are curious about old systems like this, want some tips on resurrecting old hardware or just want to shed a tear as your misspent youth is torn apart before your eyes.

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The SD-11 Sphericular Display: Pixels that Aren’t Pixels

Ever heard of a sphericular display? [AnubisTTP] laid hands on a (damaged) Burroughs SD-11 Sphericular Display and tore down the unusual device to see what was inside. It’s a type of projection display with an array of bulbs at the back and a slab of plastic at the front, and the rest is empty space. The usual expected lenses and slides are missing… or are they? It turns out that the thin display surface at the front of the unit is packed with a two- dimensional 30 x 30 array of small lenses, a shadow mask, and what can be thought of as a high-density pixel mask. The SD-11 was cemented together and clearly not intended to be disassembled, but [AnubisTTP] managed to cut things carefully apart in order to show exactly how these fascinating devices solved the problem of displaying digits 0-9 (with optional decimal points) on the single small screen without separate digit masks and lenses to bend the light paths around.

The “pixel mask” of the SD-11

The face of the display can be thought of as a 30×30 array of pixels, with each of the microlenses in the lens array acting as one of these pixels. But these pixels are not individually addressable, they light up only in fixed patterns determined by the “pixel mask”. How exactly does this happen? With each microlens in the array showing a miniature of the bulb pattern at the rear of the display, a fixed image pattern can be shown at the front by putting a mask over each lens: if a certain bulb at the rear needs to result in a lit pixel at the front, that mask has a hole in that bulb’s location. If not, there is no hole and the light is blocked. Just as the compound lens is a two-dimensional array of microlenses, so is the light mask really a two-dimensional array of smaller masks: exactly one per microlens. In this way the “pixel mask” is how each bulb at the rear results in a fixed pattern (digits, in this case) projected at the front.

The Burroughs SD-11 Sphericular Display was very light, containing mostly empty space where other projection displays had lenses and light masks. It turns out that the SD-11 operates using the same principles as other projection displays, but by using a high-density light mask and a compound lens array it does so by an entirely different method. It’s a great peek into one of the different and fascinating ways problems got solved before modern display solutions became common.

Printed PC Speakers Are Way Cooler Than Yours

On the off chance you’re reading these words on an actual desktop computer (rather than a phone, tablet, smart mirror, game console…), stop and look at the speakers you have on either side of your monitor. Are you back now? OK, now look at the PC speakers and amplifier [Chris Slyka] recently built and realize you’ve been bested. Don’t feel bad, he’s got us beat as well.

The speaker and amplifier enclosures were painstakingly printed and assembled over the course of three months, and each piece was designed to be small enough to fit onto the roughly 4 in x 4 in bed of his PrintrBot Play. While his limited print volume made the design considerably trickier, it did force [Chris] to adopt a modular design approach with arguably made assembly (and potential future repairs or improvements) easier.

The amplifier is made up of rectangular “cells” which are connected to each other via 3mm threaded rods. For now the amplifier only has 4 cells, but this could easily be expanded in the future without having to design and print a whole new case. Internally the amplifier is using two TDA8932 digital amplifier modules, and some VU meters scored off of eBay.

Each speaker enclosure is made up of 10 individual printed parts that are then glued and screwed together to make the final shape, which [Chris] mentions was inspired by an audio installation at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. They house 4″ Visaton FR 10 HM drivers, and are stuffed with insulation.

It’s a bit difficult to nail down the style that [Chris] has gone for here. You see the chunky controls and analog VU meters and want to call it retro, but it’s also a brass cog and sprocket away from being Steampunk. On the other hand, the shape of the speakers combined with the bamboo-filled PLA used to print them almost give it an organic look: as if there’s a tree somewhere that grows these things. That’s actually a kind of terrifying thought, but you get the idea.

If your computer speakers were assembled by mere mortals, never fear. We’ve covered a number of interesting hacks and mods for more run-of-the-mill desktop audio setups which should hold you over until it’s time to harvest the speaker trees.

[via /r/3Dprinting]

Why Sony’s Trinitron Tubes Were the Best

If you’re old enough to remember Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) Televisions, you probably remember that Sony sold the top products. Their Trinitron tubes always made the best TVs and Computer Monitors. [Alec Watson] dives into the history of the Sony Trinitron tube.

Sony Color TVs didn’t start with Trinitron — for several years, Sony sold Chromatron tubes. Chromatron tubes used individually charged wires placed just behind the phosphor screen. The tubes worked, but they were expensive and didn’t offer any advantage over common shadow mask tubes. It was clear the company had to innovate, and thanks to some creative engineering, the Trinitron was born.

Closeup of a Trinitron tube shows unbroken vertical stripes which led to a brighter picture.

All color TV’s shoot three electron guns at a phosphor screen. Typical color TVs use a shadow mask — a metal sheet with tiny holes cut out. The holes ensure that the electron guns hit only the red, green and blue dots of phosphor. Trinitrons use vertical bars of single phosphor color and a picket fence like aperture grille. The aperture grill blocks less of the electron beam than a shadow mask, which results in a much brighter image. Trinitrons also use a single electron gun, with three separate cathodes.

[Alec] is doing some amazing work describing early TV systems and retro consumer electronics over on his YouTube channel, Technology Connections. We’ve added him to our Must watch subscription list.

Interested in retro CRTs? Check out Dan’s article on cleaning up the fogged plastic safety screen on the front of many CRTs.

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Old TV Lends Case to Retro Magic Mirror

Remember the days when the television was the most important appliance in the house? On at dawn for the morning news and weather, and off when Johnny Carson said goodnight, it was the indispensable portal to the larger world. Broadcast TV may have relinquished its hold on the public mind in favor of smartphones, but an information portal built into an old TV might take you back to the old days.

It seems like [MisterM] has a little bit of a thing for the retro look. Witness the wallpaper in the video after the break for proof, as well as his Google-ized Radio Shack intercom project from a few months back. His current project should fit right in, based on an 8″ black-and-white TV from the 70s as it is. TVs were bulky back then to allow for the long neck of the CRT, so he decided to lop off the majority of the case and use just the bezel for his build. An 8″ Pimoroni display sits where the old tube once lived, and replicates the original 4:3 aspect ratio. With Chromium set up in kiosk mode, the family can quickly select from a variety of news and information “channels” using the original tuning knob, while parts from a salvaged mouse turns the volume control into a scroll wheel.

It’s a nice twist on the magic mirror concept, and a little different from the other retro-TV projects we’ve seen, like a retro gaming console or an old-time case for a smart TV.

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AsciiCam: Make ASCII Art with your Phone

We admit it, we have a nostalgic soft spot for ASCII Art. Pictures made form characters, printed on an old-fashioned line printer. They’ve been a hacker standby since the 1960’s. Times have moved on though. These days we’re all carrying supercomputers in our pockets.  Why not use them to create more great ASCII art? That’s exactly what [Brian Nenninger] did with AsciiCam. AsciiCam lets you use your Android phone’s camera to create ASCII images.

Using the software is simple. Just launch it and you’re greeted with an ASCII preview of the camera image. Users can select from a 16 color palette and full 24 bit color. Monochrome modes are also available. You can also choose from black text on a white background or white text on black.

The great thing about AsciiCam is the fact that it is open source. You can download the full source code from Github. If you just want to run the software, it’s available through the Google Play Store. This is a labor of love. The first Github commits were six years ago, and [Bran] is still working — the most recent commits were made only a few days back. AsciiCam is also a good example for neophyte Android programmers.

Want to know more about ASCII art? Check out Al’s history of ASCII art, or this talk about both ASCII and ANSI creations.